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Rumours of the death of Saddam Hussein

Hussein was captured alive, December 13, 2003
The death of Saddam Hussein was reported as a strong possibility by various Western analysts and officials, after a bombing attack on Baghdad at the start of the 2003 Iraq War, March 20, 2003, and subsequently after a second attempt in the closing days of the war. However, through November of that year, the United States Department of Defense insisted Hussein was still alive. This opinion was vindicated on December 13, 2003 when Saddam was captured near his hometown of Tikrit, in Iraq.

Regardless of whether Hussein had in fact been killed, attempts by both sides (Iraqi, as well as its Coalition opponents) to convince the Iraqi people that he was alive or dead were part of the "psychological warfare" or "war propaganda". In particular, the Coalition shock and awe strategy attempted to disrupt command and control of the enemy forces. If Iraqi soldiers were convinced of Hussein's death, it could lead to increased desertion or surrender, while if Iraqi people were convinced he was alive, it might encourage resistance against the invasion, out of both loyalty and fear.

Hussein was widely regarded as a "master of survival", making any assassination attempt difficult. He supposedly made use of body doubles, who have reportedly had plastic surgery and learned his mannerisms. He shied away from public appearances, preferring to use doubles for any such events. He is reported to never have slept in the same place twice. He also had a network of German-designed bunkers and tunnels designed to withstand nuclear overpressures. They may not be able to withstand direct hits from purpose-built "bunker buster" precision bombs. During the 1990-1991 Gulf War, he spent several weeks in a tent in the middle of the desert, and in one incident turned up unannounced at the house of a family near Basra to stay the night.

Rumours of the death of Hussein can be compared to similar rumours of the death of Osama bin Laden during the 2001 Afghanistan war. An alternative theory that had Hussein alive, but outside of Iraq, placed him at the Hotel Cote d'Azur De Cham in Latakiya, Syria.

March 20, 2003 bombing

At approximately 02:30 UTC or about 90 minutes after the lapse of the 48-hour deadline, at 5:30 am local time, explosions were heard in Baghdad. At 03:15 UTC, or 10:15 pm EST, President George W. Bush announced that he had ordered the coalition to launch an attack on a "target of opportunity" against specified targets in Iraq. According to The Pentagon, 36 Tomahawk missiles and two F-117 launched GBU-27 bombs had been used in this assault. Other reports have the number of missiles at forty or more. The targets were high-level Iraqi governmental officials, including Saddam Hussein himself, and were based on specific intelligence which led the U.S. government to believe it knew his movements.

An address apparently made by Saddam Hussein was broadcast on Iraqi TV later on March 20 at approximately 21:00 local time. Iraqi state television claimed that this report was live. The person making the broadcast refers to the date of the bombing and the fact that it was at dawn. He was wearing glasses and reading from handwritten notes. This broadcast did not convince US analysts that Hussein was still alive. Analysts seized upon the glasses and notes as two big differences from Saddam's usual TV appearances. Additionally, a former mistress of the Iraqi president said it was not him: the man's cheeks were too puffy.

Senator Pat Roberts said that he had been told that US intelligence officials thought that at least some of the Iraqi leadership had been killed in the attack. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that "The CIA's assessment of the tape is that it does appear to be the voice of Saddam, but there is no conclusive evidence about whether that was taped before or after the operation began".

On the March 23 Foreign Office minister Mike O'Brien said that "If he was injured it doesn't appear that it was a serious injury", referring to intelligence reports that Hussein had left the area in an ambulance. He continued: "It appears that he subsequently appeared on Iraqi TV, but again there are question marks over some of those TV appearances. So in essence we don't know for sure".

Later broadcasts

The second broadcast of the war was made on the March 24, where Hussein dressed in a green military uniform, and again read from a script. He looked in better health than the person making the previous broadcast on the 20th. He named the port of Umm Qasr and referenced individual commanders and their locations. He also named the 45th Battalion of the 11th Division, adding extra credibility. UK Defence Minister Geoff Hoon said that "Obviously analysis continues, but what I can say straight away is that those pictures were not live". Hoon also claimed that the Iraqi leader had made a number of pre-recorded broadcasts for use in different eventualities.

Most commentators continued to believe that Saddam Hussein is alive. On April 4 he appeared on Iraqi TV and made specific references to an Apache helicopter that had been shot down by a farmer or peasant using an antique musket. US intelligence officials said this showed that it was probably made after the first night of bombings (and it is particularly probable given the specificity of the references) that targeted him and his sons, which means that the initial bombings did not kill him.

April 7, 2003 bombing

On April 7, at around 15:00 local time, an air strike was carried out on Mansour, a residential area of Baghdad, on intelligence that Hussein and/or his two sons might be there along with other senior Iraqi officials. A single B1-B bomber dropped four precision-guided JDAM 2,000-pound bombs. The warplane was already aloft in case any such "target of opportunity" arose. The strike was unleashed just twelve minutes after receiving the orders and just 45 minutes after the intelligence tip was received by the Central Command in Qatar. The four bunker-penetrating bombs destroyed the target building, the al Saa restaurant block and several surrounding structures, leaving a 60-foot crater and unknown casualties.

The area of Baghdad that was bombed was not under coalition control at the time, so U.S. officials could not confirm the extent of the casualties. On April 4, video was released of Hussein walking in the street of a Baghdad neighborhood surrounded by throngs of supporters. The neighborhood in the videotape was the same one target in the April 7 strike.

Some U.S. officials privately were certain that Hussein was killed in the strike, but publicly the government remained cautious and stressed that the demise of Hussein himself is not the ultimate goal of the military conflict. British intelligence officials believed that Hussein may have left the targeted building just minutes before it was destroyed, and that he probably survived the attack.

Their belief was vindicated by Saddam's capture in December 2003.

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